Siege of San José del Cabo
The Siege of San José del Cabo, from January to February 1848, was a prolonged battle of the Mexican-American War in which Mexican militia besieged a smaller force of American marines, sailors and Californio militia. The final engagement during the battle involved half of the American garrison, and a landing party from a reinforcing warship, which successfully lifted the siege.
By early 1848, Captain Manuel Pineda of the Mexican Army had assembled hundreds of peasants to fight against the American naval threat on Mexico's west coast. After his forces were defeated three times at the battles of La Paz and San José del Cabo, Captain Pineda's militia attacked San José del Cabo again and initiated a siege. The Mexican force consisted of about 300 according to American accounts; several Yaqui detribalized natives also fought with the Mexicans.
The United States garrison of San José del Cabo consisted of twenty-seven United States Marines, sixteen United States Navy sailors and twenty Californio militiamen, armed with American weapons. One 9-pound cannon was also available, as well as two other guns, left by USS Portsmouth before she set sail for the East Coast. Lieutenant Charles Heywood, of the navy, was in command. After Portsmouth left for home, the Americans were once again left isolated at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula and open to Mexican attack.
Portsmouth sailed on January 4, 1848; Lieutenant Heywood ordered his reinforced garrison to make better fortifications around their chapel barracks and emplace the two additional cannons to form an artillery battery.
For over two weeks the United States garrison encountered no enemy, all of which were apparently still recovering from the siege at La Paz. The siege of Cabo officially began on January 22, Mexicans described as insurgents seized eight of Heywood's men who were hauling supplies up from the nearby beach to San José del Cabo's chapel barracks. The supplies were left behind by an American schooner, name unknown. After this incident, Pineda's loyalists and Yaqui allies attacked Heywood's position.
The Americans and Californios initially were surprised by the Mexican force but the Mexicans were not able to sustain that advantage for long due to the Americans and Californios who quickly took up battle positions. As soon as the fighting began, the engagement was complicated by nearly fifty women and children, who fled to the Americans and their militia allies after hearing the first musket volley. None were reported injured though. The fighting continued for a few days, the Mexicans gradually took control of the town.
By February 10, Manuel Pineda's militia occupied all of the town except the barracks position which housed the United States fighting men and dozens of civilians. From the buildings of the town, the Mexicans were able to skirmish with the Americans and Californios, this was done for the remainder of hostilities. On February 11, a Mexican rifleman shot Midshipman Tenant McLanahan in the neck, Heywood's second-in-command, during a usual skirmish. The next day, the loyalists captured the garrison's water supply but not much is known as to how this was achieved.
At this point the American and Californio company became famished and were forced to either starve or surrender. Somehow a United States Navy commander in the campaign, William B. Shubrick, learned of the prolonged engagement at San José del Cabo and sent USS Cyane to relieve the garrison force. At sundown of February 14, USS Cyane reached the waters off San José del Cabo and the next morning, offloaded 102 officers and men to relieve the besieged town.
The contingent advanced along a two-mile dirt road near the hamlet of San Vicente. There near the hamlet the insurgents were waiting and had set up an ambush. Lieutenant Heywood learnt of the landing and decided to leave half of his men under the protection of their battery and barracks. Heywood and the other half, of about thirty riflemen, were able to slip out of San José del Cabo to the nearby coast where they joined the relief force.
From the meeting point, Heywood and United States Army Captain Seymour Steele's relief force of New York Volunteers, marines and sailors, proceeded up the road where the Mexican militia waited. The Americans were fired on from somewhat concealed positions and were ordered to charge and thus rout the Mexicans from the field. As soon as the Americans began their charge, most of their enemies began to flee. Some fired only one shot before turning around to run away, many were trapped and were forced to fight. The Americans advanced hastily and the fight was over in minutes.
After the battle near San Vicente, the Mexicans retreated from San José del Cabo. The siege was lifted and the relieving American force occupied San José del Cabo. During the siege and final relief, thirteen to thirty-five Mexican militiamen were counted dead on the two battlefields, and many others were reportedly wounded. Three Americans were killed as result of the fighting, two of Lieutenant Heywood's company and one other during Captain Steele's battle.
An unknown number of other Americans or Californios were reported to have been wounded. The United States military would follow this victory up with another at San Antonio, several miles south of La Paz. During this raid, the American forces attacked Captain Manuel Pineda's camp, sent him fleeing into the wilderness and freed the eight American captives, held since the beginning of the siege.
- Nathan Covington Brooks, A Complete History of the Mexican War (The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1965). Justin H. Smith, The War With Mexico, Vols. I and II. (Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1963).
- John R. Spears, The History of the Navy, Vol. III (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1897), pp. 401–409. K. Jack Bauer, Surfboats and Horse Marines (U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland, 1969).